The View from Prayer Rocks: Drilling into Pennsylvania’s “Invisible” Indian Country

For a small but proud remnant of Pennsylvania’s native peoples, the Marcellus Shale boom is (as for many other people) both a potential financial boom and a troubling dilemma—but one that raises within the native community difficult questions about how to define its own traditions of consensus and sacred landscape in a much-changed world.

Eastern Delaware Nations

Click on map for larger image.


This map, created by Bucknell University senior, Emily Bitely, shows the locations of oil and gas wells overlaying historically significant Native American sites and paths.

The locations of oil and gas wells were identified from data provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and is assumed to be accurate as of March 30, 2011.  The data can be viewed on the Pennsylvania Spatial Data Access web site.




From Prayer Rocks, part of the 14-acre tract on the Susquehanna River that Eastern Delaware Nations leased to Chesapeake Energy in April 2010, it is possible to see five or six big black or dark brown turkey vultures wheeling at one time, their feathers spread. They took the wind under wing, almost as if their purpose in creation were to test the currents of the earth’s highest livable strata, and, in mid-flight, to serve as testament to the way air can move breathing beings.

The more I delved into the Endless Mountains, and the more I tried to understand what happened at a meeting I did not attend, the more I felt that I was circling a confluence of voids, just as the vultures at Prayer Rocks tilted and glided around a galaxy of disk-shaped voids. At EDN’s March council meeting in Dushore, a Chesapeake representative noted on a sample lease the people’s request that their land not be damaged on the surface, and all but two of those present raised their hands in favor of horizontal drilling to unlock natural gas located a mile underground.

I have now hanging from the side of my dresser a dream catcher bent from red willow and woven with gold beads, a gift from one of my Native American interviewees. The work of art is full of presence and color, the hardness and solidity of workmanship, and comfortingly regular form, but at the heart is a hole, an empty eye. I went into my research this summer looking for answers about what it means to be Native American in Pennsylvania, and about the way nativeness shapes one’s attitudes and actions toward the land. What I found was an amalgam of things in people’s gifts—a red prayer tie filled with tobacco, a crinoid fossil from Little Muncy Creek, a braid of sweetgrass from Canada, and the profusion of people’s words. I also found that, as a group, Native Americans in Pennsylvania are as conflicted about Marcellus Shale drilling as other Pennsylvanians. The idea of consensus as a requirement for action hides a spectrum of perceptions of Marcellus Shale drilling as a widespread phenomenon, even though EDN members are largely in agreement that leasing to Chesapeake was the right decision.

In my conversations with current and former EDN members, I found voids—what happened in detail at the council meeting, the missing vote of the clan mother who did not attend that meeting, what people chose not to share with me. But most of all I found disagreement within the organization on the reason why the lease to Chesapeake was the best option, and about the organization itself. EDN members do not all agree on the proper roles of clan mothers and chiefs, what requirements must be met for a decision to be legitimate, or even the meaning of consensus. EDN members resist outsiders’ expectations that Native Americans should be suitably “traditional” and protective of the earth in a way that prohibits any extraction of natural resources that carries risk.

“You know, we drive cars and everything,” said David Himmelreich, an EDN member who does pipe ceremonies. “There’s a time when we need to go back and do things the way the ancestors did, and that’s when we pray.”

Like the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, EDN members try to make decisions for the present with respect to lessons passed down from the previous seven generations, as well as to the welfare of the next seven generations to come. This three-pronged sight, which is adaptable not immobile, and current not anachronistic, did not lead the EDN members who voted “yes” at the council meeting to refuse Chesapeake any right to the natural gas beneath its land.

Himmelreich, who said that he sees natural gas drilling as “pushing existence forward” because gas burns cleaner than fuel oil or coal, linked a refusal to lease to gas companies to a refusal to leave old grudges behind. He linked dwelling on the past with being “still on the reservation.” Himmelreich, who traces his ancestry to the Iroquoian Susquehannock people, says that his people left. “Our government a long, long, long, long time ago said, ‘We’re going to put you here. We’re going to take care of you. We’re going to give you health. We’re going to give you schooling and food and jobs, so don’t go anywhere. Stay right here.’ So those people are still there. Generation after generation after generation. There’s alcoholism, drug addiction.”

He said, “The Creator gave us things, but he also gave us a mind.”

Mollie Eliot, EDN secretary, explained that her thoughts about natural gas drilling are complex. “I feel like it’s harming the earth,” she said. “I also feel like driving my car is harming the earth. And in this dominant society I have to pay my bills and make a living and be realistic about what I can and can’t do and still survive. So it became part of that weighing process. I can accept this because I have to do this. In a perfect world for me, we wouldn’t be drilling. We would be looking for energy sources that wouldn’t harm the earth in any way. Tell me what they are.”

EDN members Joe and Jeanne Stark believe that hydraulic fracturing for natural gas will not have much environmental impact, and that its positive effects—stimulating the local economy and providing needed funds to the elderly poor—will outweigh negative consequences such as wear on roads. They emphasized that they support EDN’s decision on drilling, and are excitedly waiting for gas companies to approach them about their property, because they want to make sure they can pay their bills and provide for their loved ones.

Jeanne Stark said that they are worried that they will be “taxed to death” once gas production starts near them, but the promise of needed funds makes drilling seem more like an opportunity than a threat.

“This used to be a big farming area,” she said, “until Procter & Gamble came in and brought jobs, to try to keep the young people from going out of the state or county to search for jobs.”

She said that the Procter & Gamble plant in Mehoopany, which the company described in a 1997 “Environmental Management Case Study” as covering 1200 acres and including 85 acres of roof, “put us on the map for awhile,” but farmers still gave up their farms.

Stark said of gas drilling, “This will give our area a boost because if you don’t work at Procter & Gamble, which is the biggest job in the area, or if you’re not educated to get a position in the courthouse or some other area—”

Then her husband interrupted to tell me that Procter & Gamble had gas wells on the Mehoopany property. Citrus Energy Corp., based in Colorado, contracted with Procter & Gamble to construct five well pads.

The Starks said they support gas drilling not only for the benefits they believe it will bring to area as a whole, but also because they, and others they know, need the money it could provide. Joe Stark said, “Yeah, we’re both Native Americans, and we don’t believe in sticking anything into Mother Earth, but in this case, we’ve got to go along with it. Especially if it helps my mother-in-law out. She’s 88, and if it wasn’t for her daughter, she’d lose her house because of school taxes, property tax, things like that.”

Yet consensus at the March council meeting shows not so much that all present support hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Shale formation, but that even those who oppose drilling think that they are powerless to stop it, even if they voted “no.” As Chief John Tamaqua Taffe said, “We didn’t think we could stop Chesapeake or anybody else by refusing to sign our little piece of land, and we would probably just end up not getting anything. And if they drill around you, and you don’t want to sell your gas, nobody’s going to want to come some other time and get the gas from fourteen acres.”

Faced with the ambitions of a company with the self-proclaimed “largest onshore leasehold in the U.S.” for its fourteen acres of land, EDN decided to profit and plan to use lease and gas monies to fund the organization’s profits. The opportunity offered by Chesapeake, leaders and members knew, had an expiration date. They decided that it was best not to let the opportunity slip away.

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